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It pays to clean up your yard

There's something about that first wave of warm weather that inspires Canadians to embrace the great outdoors. But forget about hiking or cottage life -- these days it's as simple as abandoning the couch in favour of a lounger in the backyard.

"The whole trend for living outside is enormous right now," says Denis Flanagan, host of HGTV's One Garden, Two Looks and manager of membership services and PR for Landscape Ontario. "The garden has become an extension of the house."

Fences, trees, patios, paths, decks and water features all increase the enjoyment -- and value -- of a home. As a result, landscaping is an investment on par with any indoor renovation project. "It's up there with kitchens and bathrooms right now," says Flanagan.

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A growing investment
Some estimate landscaping can raise a home's value by at least 15 percent. It's also established that sprucing up your outdoor space, especially the front yard, plays a major role in making your home attractive to potential buyers.

"Curb appeal is very significant for resale," explains Jordan Sadja, a landscape architect with Jordan Designs in Toronto. However, landscaping is very personal, says Flanagan: "I think the majority of people are doing it for themselves."

Whatever the motivation, it appears that more time and money are being spent on decorating outdoor spaces today than ever before. While it's not unheard of for homeowners to spend in excess of $200,000 on landscaping, Sharon Kosmer, a Toronto-based horticultural technologist and landscape designer, says there are options for every budget.

Planning zone
"If you don't have a plan, it's easy to waste money," warns Flanagan. For some, the plan is budgeting $200 for perennials, but for others it involves detailed drawings. This usually requires a landscape architect or designer, although those with a vision and a green thumb may opt to use landscape design software, widely available on the web.

An expert's master drawing, with details right down to the name of each plant, usually costs between $750 and $2,000, depending on the scope of the project.

From there, the rule of thumb is to budget 10 percent to 25 percent of the value of your home. For example, says Kosmer, an overhaul of the average front yard -- complete with an interlocking brick walkway, lighting, planting, irrigation and urns -- costs between $20,000 and $25,000.

"It's generally not the materials that are expensive, but the labour," she explains.

If you're willing and able to do the work yourself, you'll save money, but some projects require an expert. When hiring, interview a number of candidates, review past projects, check references, consult professional associations and ensure the company has liability insurance.

Hot features
As the outdoors becomes an extension of the living space, the trend is to create garden "rooms" -- areas for entertaining, cooking, playing or relaxing.

Thanks to the surge of do-it-yourself retailers, waterfalls, outdoor heating, path lighting and gazebos are accessible to people from all walks of life, whether they live in a sprawling country home or a subdivision and have a roof-top patio or a tiny backyard in the city.

Outdoor dining sets of teak or wrought iron are lasting investments, while pillow-laden chairs and lounges create areas for relaxing and entertaining that rival even the most comfortable living room.

Cooking has reached new heights outdoors. Forget the hibachi and charcoal -- think portable outdoor kitchen, complete with built-in barbecue, countertops for preparing food, sinks with running water and even bars and stainless steel fridges. Fireplaces (starting at about $80) are also a big hit, but check local by-laws before you make it the focal point of your garden.

Hot tubs and pools have made a comeback, but demand is also big for waterfalls, water walls and fountains, which start at around $60.

"What people are looking for is the sound," explains Kosmer: gurgling water drowns out the noise of traffic or neighbours. And with the prevalence of West Nile virus in Eastern Canada, "the trend has gone away from anything that has still water" that might act as a breeding ground for mosquitoes, says Sadja.

While water offers tranquility, lighting sets the mood. Funky lanterns, path lighting, low lighting for the deck and torches easily transform a drab yard, and energy-saving LED lighting is a smart option.

Privacy rights (and wrongs)
It's ironic that homeowners make their garden desirable, only to conceal it with a fence. But many people don't want neighbours peering in to their newly renovated bathrooms either.

"Everyone wants privacy in their garden," says Flanagan, adding "the biggest mistake is thinking you need to create privacy all the way around." Those with large properties need not built fortress-like fences or cultivate six-foot hedges (which are also a lot of work to maintain). Rather, be creative with shrubs and a variety of greenery to create pockets of privacy.

However, in closer quarters, such as subdivisions, fences still make for good neighbours. "Almost everyone is refencing," says Sadja.

Rather than a boring wall of graying wood, cedar is appealing, although it costs twice as much as pressure-treated wood. Lattice and other decorative accents add interest, but Kosmer says the easiest way to mask an unsightly fence is with a coat of green paint and select greenery.

While wood decks are always popular, the trend is moving toward stone products, says Sadja. Flagstone patios (pre-cast concrete is a cheaper alternative) with complementary walkways and landscaping walls are bringing people closer to nature.

In the green
"Planting is the most inexpensive thing you can do," says Kosmer, who cautions it's cheaper to start with immature plants than fully grown ones.

What you plant depends on whether you look at gardening as a labour of love or just labour. Experts say low-maintenance, colourful gardens are in demand. Perennials are great for those willing to toil, while annuals are safer if you don't know how to take care of a garden.

Greenery is an investment, says Flanagan. For example, ornamental trees, such as the popular Japanese Maple ($100 to $2,000), appreciate over time.

Sadja also suggests "decorative urns that can be replanted three or four times a year" as the seasons change. Container gardening is also popular, and garden centres offer a variety of affordable planters.

Whatever your project of choice, experts agree that as the line blurs between outdoor and indoor living, sprucing up the yard can only add to your home's value -- both in terms of personal pleasure and resale potential.

Michelle Warren is a freelance writer in Toronto.

-- Posted: April 8, 2005
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